Deadly serious: The United Nations, drugs, and capital punishment in the 1980s

Publication Name

International Journal of Drug Policy


Background: Research into capital punishment has focussed on the length of time it will take to abolish. It will take decades or centuries. A key moment in the movement to abolish the death penalty was the 1980s when the Second Optional Protocol to the ICCPR was developed. This was also the decade that the last significant changes were made to the United Nations drug conventions. At the time, awareness of the issue of capital punishment for drug offences was increasing around the world as more people were getting executed. This article looks at how western countries and the United Nations responded to Malaysia which introduced the mandatory death penalty for drug offences in 1982. Methods: Over 30,000 pages of documents have been accessed through the National Archives of Australia in Canberra. These have been photographed, scanned and converted to OCR. The most relevant folders have then been analysed through NVivo 12 to look for relevant mentions of the research question: capital punishment and Malaysia. All probative data is then presented in the article. Results: The data from National Archives suggests that the UN, Australia, and other western countries were happy to continue supporting Malaysia's drug policy and to elect it to high positions at UN meetings despite their public proclamations that they were opposed to the death penalty. Conclusion: Applying a critical juncture approach, the article concludes that the 1980s was a critical juncture in the movement to abolish the death penalty but abolitionist countries allowed capital punishment to continue for drug offences. This may have set back the abolition movement by decades.

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